Special to the JTA Hebrew Classes at Beijing University
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Special to the JTA Hebrew Classes at Beijing University

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The Department of Oriental Languages of Beijing University, China’s premier institution here at the national capital, offers Japanese, Korean, Burmese, Thai, Mongolian, Arabic — and now, Modern Hebrew.

When the Ministry of Culture decided that Ivrit would be studied, some of the Chinese teachers of Arabic were expected to teach Hebrew also. They had compiled a Chinese-English-Hebrew dictionary by cutting apart the columns of Reuben Alcalay’s Hebrew-English dictionary, adding a column of Chinese characters, and photo-duplicating a dozen copies which were then bound in black cloth.

For some reason, though, an American was employed to inaugurate Hebrew-language instruction in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Michael Mann, a recent graduate of Princeton University where he majored in chemistry, had signed up to teach English for a year at Beijing University. When university officials learned that he was a graduate of the SAR Hebrew day school in The Bronx, New York, and the Ramaz Hebrew high school in Manhattan, they decided he would teach their first class in Ivrit.

When they told him, only two weeks before he was due to leave for China, Mann stuffed some World Zionist Organization teaching materials in his flight bag. He had never taught Hebrew, or anything else, until he went to China.


At Beijing University, Kita Alef, the beginners’ class, started with 10 students. Although most were assigned to Kita Alef, a few asked to study Ivrit. One young woman came to Kita Alef knowing some Biblical Hebrew. She told Mann she had been taught by an old Chinese gentlemen who himself had learned Hebrew from a Christian missionary in Xi’an many years before.

One man in the Chinese Ministry of Culture is known to “have” some Hebrew, learned many years ago, no one knows how or where. Except for a few faculty members at Beijing and perhaps elsewhere, the Hebrew language is unknown among the Chinese, who number one billion, a fourth of the human race.

None of the students in Kita Alef comes from Kaifeng, traditional center of the long-vanished community of Chinese Jews. They knew little or nothing about Jews, Judaism or the State of Israel when they started studying Ivrit.

Whatever these students may have learned earlier — in school or from the Chinese media, for example — was presented from the Arab and Third World viewpoint, in accordance with current PRC foreign policy directives.

The Beijing students were assigned to major in Hebrew. Their class in Ivrit meets from eight to ten o’clock every morning, six days a week. In addition to 12 hours of Hebrew language instruction, they attend other classes for a total of 20 hours each week.

They are enrolled in a five-year university program. After they master Hebrew, they will study Jewish history, modern Hebrew literature, Judaism and related matters for 12 hours a week, plus eight hours of other subjects.

Kita Alef uses BeAl Pe, a standard Hebrew teaching text and workbook. Each student has taken a Hebrew name — Chana, Dan, Dinah, Gershom, Moshe, Shula, Tsiporah, Uzi, Yitzhak and Yosef.

They recite — reading aloud or practicing the dialogue of their textbook — shyly, giggling at their mistakes. Mann translates new vocabulary into English, which some of his students studied for as many as eight years before entering the university. In class, however, he speaks mainly in Hebrew, using the Ivrit beivrit method widely employed in Israel and elsewhere. Mann knows only a little Chinese. Words he cannot explain are looked up in the makeshift Chinese-English-Hebrew dictionary.

The Hebrew class meets in a small, bare room lacking the maps of Israel, posters and alphabet charts that typically adorn Hebrew classrooms elsewhere.


When I visited, Kita Alef was learning about Israeli pastimes — kadoor regel, kadoor basis, hakolnoa, hateatron, football, baseball, the cinema, the theater. Musica was discussed intensively, each student telling in Hebrew what he or she prefers to hear — “pop, classi, symphonit.”

Then Kita Alef turned to geography of Israel. They learned that Tel Aviv al yad hayam, Tel Aviv is beside the sea, haNegev darom shel Yisrael, the Negev is in Israel’s South, and that haNegev hamidbar shel Yisrael, the Negev is Israel’s desert.

Mann praised every utterance, frequently exclaiming nachon, correct, and tov meod, very good. Considerable “positive reinforcement” of this kind is a hallmark of Israeli ulpan teaching.

Four years from now, the graduates of Kita Alef will be assigned jobs by the Chinese government. The students have no idea where they will be sent or what work they will be told to do. If any of them dream of visiting Israel someday, they did not mention it to me or their teacher. Michael Mann is returning to the United States to enter medical school, but Hebrew classes will be continued at Beijing University. Why?


The People’s Republic of China has no diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. When telecommunications links between the two countries were established recently, the Chinese Foreign Ministry specifically announced that this did not presage any change in China’s non-recognition of Israel.

At least 15 million Moslems are believed to live in China, twice as many as when the Communists came to power 40 years ago, but statistics are not firm. Some estimates run as high as 50 million Chinese Moslems, which would equal the population of France.

Whatever their share of the nation’s gigantic population, Chinese Moslems predominantly live in sensitive border areas, and fundamentalism is on the rise among them as it is throughout the Islamic world. The government issued the first Chinese-language Koran in 1982, perhaps in response to these facts.

Future Sino-Israeli relations are therefore as uncertain as the job prospects of Kita Alef. Unpredictable as the outlook may be, when I left Beijing on a Chinese government airliner, its tape recorder was playing a familiar song from Fiddler on the Roof, “Sunrise, Sunset.”

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